in Our Schools: The Principal Part
Charlotte K. Frank, Ph.D.
this century, countless “magic bullets” have been
suggested for reforming our schools. In the 1920s, a progressive
movement sought to eliminate curricula and external standards.
In the 1950s, we were advised that the answer was to create
fewer, larger schools out of the many, smaller ones—yet
today, we see many larger schools being divided into smaller
learning centers. We’ve gone through “relevance,”
“technology,” “school uniforms” and
other concepts du jour that, by themselves—so people
thought—would have the power to revolutionize education
and transform our schools.
All have been important ideas; all have contributed, in their
own special way, to improving education. But none has focused
on a crucial element in school reform: leadership. It seems
an obvious concept. Leadership is vital in all areas of our
society: government, business, leading a baseball team, conducting
a symphony. The study of leadership has grown as an academic
discipline, through the work of such individuals as John P.
Kotter, Henry Mintzberg, Rosabeth Moss Kanter and others. But
the principles of leadership have not been suitably adapted
to our schools. While effective classrooms require the leadership
of the teacher, effective schools require the leadership of
Indeed, our principals are eager and willing to take that responsibility.
But what has the actual job of the school principal become today?
Readers of Education Week may recall a recent article in
which several principals discussed their duties. These include
building the staff—and frequently running baby-sitting
facilities for them; conducting adult literacy programs so parents
can better help their children with their studies; dealing with
children with emotional or behavioral problems; following and
implementing federal rules regarding special education; and
taking on such other roles as union negotiator, community and
parent public relations liaison; master of playground rules,
bus schedules and budgets; and, in some cases, emergency plumber.
School leadership today is upside down. It’s become 80
percent operations and 20 percent academic leadership. That’s
looking at education through the wrong end of the telescope.
Unfortunately, our current school environment dictates it—and
too many principals and school superintendents have been trained
to fit that mold. This is particularly distressing given our
nation’s recent “No Child Left Behind” legislation.
If our goal is academic excellence for all our children, then
our educational leaders have the responsibility—and must
be given the tools and training—to carry out that mandate.
The term principal, as you may know, is shortened from the original
concept of the position as principal teacher. It’s the
principal’s role to be a school’s instructional
leader. That role, in turn, encompasses many elements—for
example, working in collaboration with teachers in establishing
the educational climate for the entire school building; disaggregating
data so that they know what is happening in each and every classroom;
assessing existing and proposed teaching tools to determine
which are succeeding, which are not, and which are not likely
to; working with the teaching staff day in and day out—supporting
and encouraging those individuals who really care, and helping
to strengthen the skills of those who desperately need assistance.
The job, overall, is ensuring that the necessary environment
and tools are in place. Principal means, quite literally,
taking the principal role of leadership on the team that contributes
to effective learning. That team must also include parents and
members of the community, who, so often, are eager to help if
only they were personally called upon and guided in making their
specific contributions. But seeing where they can help, and
personally enlisting that help, takes vision, and then translating
that vision into specifics—all of which are other aspects
The challenge of instructional leadership is exciting and psychologically
rewarding—which is why so many dedicated men and women
want to choose it as a profession. The reality of the role,
however—particularly in terms of workload, stress and
pay—turns out too often to be another matter. As a result,
surveys show, many teachers are reluctant to train to become
principals. As today’s principals retire, and as the need
for school administrators grows (the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
has projected an increase in that need of 10 to 20 percent through
2005), our nation’s educational system faces trouble.
Thankfully there are foundations such as The Eli Broad and Wallace-Readers
Digest Funds that are very actively involved in providing better
preparation for supervisors. City and State systems have to
design a systemic approach to solving this problem. This would
include requiring graduate schools of education to play a more
meaningful role in their preparation of supervisors. One idea
I’d like to see implemented is “building a bench”
within a district—similar in concept to building a bench
on a football or baseball team. In this concept,
teachers and potential administrators in the district
would be trained in instructional leadership, right in the schools
and under the guidance of respected presiding or former principals,
in order to build their practical knowledge and experience of
what the job takes. The “heir apparent” would be
in place to ensure continuity in any school change that has
I’m pleased to see that one organization, the National
Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP), is already
taking sturdy steps in this direction. It recently published
a handbook, Leading Learning Communities: Standards for What
Principals Should Know and Be Able to Do, detailing principals’
responsibilities, with emphasis on instructional leadership.
The NAESP publication, among other things, identifies a number
of standards that redefine such leadership for today’s
principals. These focus on leading schools in a way that puts
students and professional development at the center; promoting
the academic success of all students; creating and demanding
rigorous content and instruction; using multiple sources of
data as a diagnostic tool toward the goal of instructional improvement;
and actively engaging the community to create shared responsibility
for student and school success. The report also describes ways
in which policymakers can offer improved support for school
Central to raising our nation’s academic achievement are
our teachers. In New York City for example, the United Federation
of Teachers, in response to requests by their teachers for curriculum
in all the subject areas, assumed a leadership role by working
with the leaders in the city schools, and published a curriculum
for teaching English Language Arts (K-12). With this information,
principals can work with their teachers to build the capacity
for their students to successfully meet the ELA standards. Pivotal
for success in this process is the school principal. Let us
properly prepare them to do the job that has to be done—and
give them the environment and tools they need to fulfill their
mission to be the principal teacher.#
Charlotte K. Frank, Ph.D., is senior vice president for
research and development at McGraw-Hill Education, a unit of
the McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Formerly a teacher and administrator
in New York City’s public school system, she recently
served as Regent of Judicial District 1 in New York
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